Posts Tagged ‘Paranormal’

Book of Photographs of the Paranormal

October 31, 2020

Photographs of the Unknown, by Robert Rickard and Richard Kelly (London: New English Library 1980).

I thought this book would be a suitably spooky subject for Hallowe’en. Bob Rickard is one of the founders and editors of the Fortean Times, the magazine of the weird that’s been going since the 1970s. A little note on the last page underneath the picture credits gives instruction to readers how they can submit their photographs of the paranormal to the Fortean Times. The blurb on the back cover runs

SEA MONSTERS

ALIENS

LEVITATION

POLTERGEISTS

ECTOPLASM

PHANTOMS

UFOS …. all photographed!

The largest, most complete, most amazing collection of photographs of the Unknown and the Unexplained ever published.

Many have never been published before, others are presented for the first time in their original full colour. They have been researched and collected from all over the world.

If you believe and want to convince other people, if you don’t know for sure but have an open mind, if you’ve ever been inclined to believe but want to see the evidence, you will need this unique archive that covers the whole range of unexplained phenomena.

The book has the following chapters, each containing these individual sections

Introduction

Strange Life, Loch Ness, Water Monsters, Sea Monsters, The Yeti, Bigfoot.

Unusual Natural Phenomena, Living rocks, Falls, Atmospheric magic, Natural ‘UFOs’, ghost lights.

UFOs, Flying Cigars, UFOs and Planes, UFOS over Water, UFO Shapes, UFOs Above Us, UFOs in Motion, UFO Beings Among Us? Optical UFOs, Computer Analysis, UFOs from the Sea.

Psychic Phenomena, Possession, Stigmata, Bleeding Images, Ectoplasm, Mediumship, A Modern Medium, Thoughtography, Kirlian Photography.

Paranormal Persons, BVM and Angels, Portraits of Christ, Aliens, Phantoms, Materializations.

Mind over Matter, Yoga, Pain Immunity, Psychic Surgery, Fire Immunity, Firewalking, Spoonbenders, Table Turning, Levitation of Objects, Apports, Levitation, Poltergeists.

This is another book I ordered from Amazon in order to give myself something to read during the lockdown. I think I remember it from the time it first came out, and if so, then the book really scared me. I was at secondary school, and the books publication was featured on breakfast TV. I remember one of the presenters of the Beeb’s breakfast show introducing a piece on it by saying something about the unknown being photographed and asking ‘but what are they photographing?’ Which is a very good question. The book I remember had a different cover. This was a monotone/ black and white photo of a medium producing ectoplasm from their mouth, in which there were faces. This doesn’t seem to have this image, which may well have come from the hardback edition. Or it may be that I’m confusing it with a completely different book. There is, however, a photo of ectoplasm coming out of a medium’s left nostril, in which there’s the face of a young soldier killed in World War I. It was these ectoplasmic faces which scared me, and I can remember the fear I felt passing the book on a display table in George’s, the big local bookshop in Bristol on a trip there.

Some of the photos are very well known, like Patterson-Gimlin pic of Bigfoot, a still taken from film footage of the creature walking in the American woods made a few years before. To many people, the film and photo are proof that Sasquatch is a real, paws and pelt animal. The film’s been shown on any number of TV documentaries about Bigfoot and the Yeti. Some of the experts called on in these programmes to give their opinion have said that it’s unlikely to be a fake because the fur is of different lengths. You’d see this in a real animal, but not in a costume. On the negative side, other experts have said that it can’t be real, as the creature seems to have both male and female genitalia. But perhaps it’s just got manboobs.

The debate about this photo still goes on today, but others are hoaxes or almost certainly hoaxes. A few years ago it was revealed that the ‘surgeon’s photograph’ of the Loch Ness monster, which has appeared in countless documentaries, newspapers and magazine articles about the cryptid, was very definitely a fake. It was created by adding a plesiosaurus-style neck to a toy submarine, which was then sent sailing in the Loch.

The same goes for some, at least, of the UFO photographs. There’s a photo of a UFO bearing the Ummo symbol. The Ummo messages were a series of letters sent to various people in Franco’s claim, which claimed they came from aliens, who had travelled to Earth from the planet Ummo. They contained a wealth of detail about their spacecraft, language, home world and so on. Most, if not all UFO investigators now believe they were a hoax. As are the photos of the Venusian spaceships taken by George Adamski. One of the photographs Adamski claimed was of an alien spacecraft was actually of his chicken coop. A few weeks ago I went to an online lecture hosted by the paranormal investigation group, ASSAP, in which the speaker suggested that Adamski’s Venusian spacecraft was actually a photograph of a type of gas lantern then available. And yes, they do look exactly the same.

The ‘thoughtographs’ are the images Ted Serios, an alcoholic bellboy, claimed to produce on film using the power of his mind. This was after he’d drunk enough to start his gums and anus bleeding. I don’t know if Serios was ever caught in fraud, but I’ve watched documentaries where sceptics have shown how it could have been faked. The same goes for the piccie of Soviet psychic Nina Kulagina showing off her telekinesis skills. This was debunked back in the ’90s or so in the Channel 4 programme Secrets of the Psychics.

Sceptics have also argued that psychic surgery is also a fraud. The psychics who claim to be able to perform such miracles don’t actually cut into the body of their unfortunate dupes, and the disease organs they remove aren’t human but chicken guts. This particular paranormal field was the subject of an episode of Jonathan Creek, the BBC detective drama about a crime-busting stage magician. That particular episode involved the murder of someone, who was dying and desperate to have similar treatment, or who had actually undergone it. It was some years ago, and I can’t really remember. It doesn’t matter, as the show came down very much on the side of the sceptics.

Sceptics have also presented a strong argument that firewalking isn’t supernatural either. From what I remember, flesh burns at quite a high temperature, higher than the coals and embers on which people walk, and so anyone can do it. Well, that’s what they claim. I wouldn’t like to test it, and don’t advise anyone else to do either unless they know exactly what they’re doing.

The Fortean Times also carried an article a few years ago, which also claimed that the photograph showing a group of men in broadbrimmed hats and raincoats surrounding a diminutive alien was also a hoax. It was published in a German newspaper as an April Fool’s or Hallowe’en prank, or the German equivalents thereof. As for spoon-bending, made notorious by Uri Geller, there’s a trick to fake that which goes all the way back to the 18th century and the book, Rational Recreations. It’s possible that Geller, if he is a fake, is using that trick or similar.

It’s also entirely possible that some of the spirit photos are also fakes. They’ve been taken since the 19th century and the American photographer Hans Mumler. I have a feeling that Mumler was sued by people, who believed he’d deceived them. They noticed that the dead relatives and other people, who appeared in Mumler’s photos, did so in the same poses, expressions and attitudes as they had in other photographs. There were several ways such photographs could be faked with the plates exposed twice, once for the image of the sitter, and again for the supposed spirit. However, I think Mumler, or perhaps one of his competitors, was found not guilty because the prosecution couldn’t prove which method, if any, he’d used.

There are also problems with the photos of mediums producing ectoplasm. I think some fakes used to swallow cheesecloth, which they’d then regurgitate during seances. It was also noted that the female spirit one of the 19th century mediums used to materialise looked remarkably like her, but the two did appear side by side. It’s probably fraud but this argues against it.

Several of the poltergeist photos seem to be of the Enfield polt that was investigated by the SPR and Guy Lyon Playfair in the 1970s. This is a notorious British case which Playfair seemed to believe was genuinely paranormal, and which he publicised. The sceptical UFO magazine Magonia has suggested instead that it was fraud within an unhealthy family situation.

Other paranormal phenomena are almost certainly camera artefacts, such as the mysterious balls of light in one set of photographs, as the book itself suggests. Others include the mysterious tendrils of light captured by a female photographer. I came across the same effect on photos taken by a visitor to Derby jail, which is now open to ghost hunters as a haunted location. A few quick experiments showed that this did seem to be a trick of the light as it was caught in the camera lens.

I’ve also come across an explanation, which I’m afraid I can’t remember, for the Kirlian photographs that were also all the rage at one time. This showed that, as dramatic as they appear, they definitely aren’t of any aura surrounding living things. But they do look really beautiful, however.

I doubt if any of these photographs would convince a sceptic like the late James Randi or mentalist like Derren Brown. On the other hand, it may be that some are genuine, and that there really are paranormal forces out there that some have been able to capture on film.

‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

October 26, 2020

Last Tuesday, 20th October 2020, the stage magician and sceptic James Randi passed away at the age of 92. Randy was a controversial. After starting out as a stage magician, Randi turned to exposing fake psychics. He was a prominent member of the Sceptics’ organisation CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, along with scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan and the mathematician Martin Gardner. CSICOP’s founders were alarmed at the growth of interest in the occult. Sagan, a Humanist, published his attack on the supernatural in the Demon Haunted World. He seemed to be frightened that we were entering a new Dark Age of superstition, where science and rationality would be forgotten, and in which people would begin their day by poring over their horoscopes.

The I published this obituary of Randi in their weekend edition for 24th-25th October 2020, reprinted from the Washington Post. It runs

James Randi, who has died aged 92, was an internationally acclaimed magician and escape artist who spent much of his career debunking all things paranormal – from spoon bending and water dowsing to spirit channelling and faith healing.

Randall James Ham Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. A child prodigy, he was shy and often lonely. Bored by rote classroom learning, he sought refuge in the library. At a young age, he developed an interest in magic, and at 17 he dropped out of high school, turned down several college scholarships and joined a travelling carnival as junior magician.

He overcame a stammer and fear of speaking in public, affected a turban and goatee, and honed his illusionist skills under a series of stage names, including Zo-Ran, Prince Iblis, Telepath and the Great Randall.

After a stint at faking clairvoyance, in which many took his prophecies seriously – he correctly predicted the winner of baseball’s World Series in 1949, for example – he said he was unable to persuade believerss that his powers were strictly terrestrial. He said he “couldn’t live that kind of lie” and returned to conventional magic as The Amazing Randi.

He also became an escape artist and held Guinness world records for surviving the longest time inside a block of ice (55 minutes) and for being sealed the longest in an underwater coffin (one hour and 44 minutes), breaking a record set by Harry Houdini.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Randi’s many appearances on television made him a fixture of prime time entertainment. In 1973 he toured with heavy metal rock star Alice Cooper as an executioner simulating the beheading of the singer at each performance.

Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable when it was, in fact, the result of simple physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. “The difference between them and me,” Randi told The New York Times in 1981, “is that I admit that I’m a charlatan. They don’t. I don’t have time for things that go bump in the night.”

Randi and the research organisation he helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, offered payouts ranging up to $1m (£77,000) to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. While he had many takers, he said, none of them earned a cent.

In 2010, at the age of 81, Randi publicly announced he was gay. He married a Venezuelan artist, Deyvi Pena in 2013. The following year, film-maker Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein released An Honest Liar, a documentary of Randi’s life.

I first became aware of Randi in the early 1980s, when he appeared in the pages of the Absurder attacking Doris Stokes. Stokes was a medium, who was then in news, much like Derek Acorah and other celebrity psychics a few years ago. Randi showed that much of her comments and remarks when she was supposedly getting in touch with the dead were ‘bunkum statements’. They sounded true and unique to the reader or listener, but they were actually vague and described the way most people felt. Her descriptions of the deceased and the questions she asked her audience were also so vague that they would apply to someone there, who would then become convinced that Stokes was genuinely in contact with a dead friend or relative.

Several times Randi’s own outspoken comment about those he judged to be frauds landed him in legal. In one case, he was sued for libel by a man he claimed was called by the police ‘the shopping mall molester’. Er, not quite. The target of Randi’s wrath had been arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 or 13 year old girl in a shopping centre. But he hadn’t been charged with the offence, as it was dropped due to plea bargaining. And because he hadn’t been charged with it, Randi’s comments were technically libel.

He also got into similar trouble with Uri Geller. He called him a fraud, at which Geller sued him in every country in the world. This resulted in Randi settling out of court with the notorious spoon-bender.

Actually, I think Randi is probably right here. Geller’s most famous trick of bending spoons has been around since at least in the 18th century. It’s mentioned in a book of such amusements from that time, Rational Recreations. Geller was also successfully sued in the 1970s or so by an Israeli engineering student for misleading advertising. Geller’s publicity claimed his act presented overwhelming proof of the paranormal. The student went to see it and wasn’t impressed. He sued, claiming that all he’d seen was standard stage magic. The beak concurred, and judged in his favour.

There was also a scandal a few years ago when it turned out that Randi’s partner was actually an illegal immigrant, who was living in the US under an identity he’d stolen.

Randi was a colourful figure, but I was never a fan of his. While I agree that fake psychics and mediums certainly exist, and should be exposed because of the way they exploit the grieving and vulnerable, I don’t share his dismissal of the supernatural. I think it’s genuine, but that its very nature makes scientific verification extremely difficult, if not impossible. CSICOP also came off as arrogant, smug and vindictive in their attacks on the paranormal and its believers and practitioners. So much so that they were seen as a kind of scientific witch hunt by their victims. A few years ago the organisation changed its name to CSI, which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation. And not Crime Scene Investigation. The name change was not occasioned because there was a cop drama with that acronym as its title playing at the time.

So RIP James Randi. He was a colourful character, who entertained millions, particularly in his bust-up with Geller. Gray Barker, the former Ufologist who began the Men In Black myth with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, took great pleasure in Randi’s antics, calling him ‘the Amusing Randi’. But I leave to the reader to decide for themselves whether the paranormal exists. And not everybody who believes in it deserves sneers and ridicule.

Radio 4 Serialisation Next Week of ‘The Haunting of Alma Fielding’

October 23, 2020

I put up a piece a little while ago about the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding: a True Ghost Story, by Kate Summerscale. This was a poltergeist case investigated in the 1930s by the Hungarian researcher Nandor Fodor. Now just weeks after the book’s publication, it’s being serialised in five parts on Radio 4 as their ‘Book of the Week’, read by Emma Fielding. Is she any relation of Alma, the woman at the centre of the case, we wonder. The instalments are broadcast at 9.45 am, Monday to Friday. The blurb for the adaptation in the Radio Times by Jane Anderson on page 132 runs

Fans of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher will be delighted to know that Kate Summerscale’s latest book has been successfully condensed into five parts for radio. After reports in 1938 of a house in Croydon being invaded by a malevolent poltergeist, Nandor Fodor, a fellow at the International Institute for Psychical Research, was determined to explain the mysterious goings on, but this is more of a psychological than a psychical investigation. Gripping, engaging and utterly brilliant.

The blurbs for the individual instalments run as follows.

Monday

Flying Teacups. Emma Fielding reads Kate Summerscale’s book, which tells the story of ghosthunter Nandor Fodor’s efforts to unravel the mystery of the haunting of a housewife living in Croydon in the 1930s. Abridged by Julian Wilkinson. (p. 133).

Tuesday

The Pilfering Poltergeist. Nandor takes Alma to the seaside, where once again her poltergeist creates a stir. (p. 135).

Wednesday

Astral Projection. Alma tells Nandor Fodor about an experience of astral projection, which raises questions and unease over her case builds. (p. 137).

Thursday

An Unsettling Turn of Events:.Nandor Fodor has questions to answer. (p. 139).

Friday

An Encounter with Sigmund Freud. Explanations for Alma’s supernatural experiences prove controversial. (p. 141).

I also somehow doubt that it’s an accident that this is being broadcast in the run up to Hallowe’en either!

‘I’ Review of Book on the Alma Fielding Poltergeist Case

October 12, 2020

Last Friday, 9th October 2020, the ‘I’ published a review by Fiona Sturges of the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Fielding was a woman from Croydon, who in 1938 found herself and her husband haunted by a poltergeist, the type of spirit which supposedly throws objects around and generally makes itself unpleasant. The review states that she was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, in particular Nandor Fodor. Summerscale came across the case while going through the Society’s files.

I’m putting up Sturges’ review as I’ve friends, who are members of the Society and very involved in paranormal research, as are a few of the great peeps, who comment on this blog. Ghost hunting is also very big at the moment, and there are any number of programmes on the satellite and cable channels, as well as a multitude of ghost hunting groups across the UK, America and other countries. Despite its popularity, there’s a big difference between serious paranormal investigation of the type done by the SPR and ASSAP and the majority of ghost hunting groups. The SPR and ASSAP contain professional scientists as well as ordinary peeps from more mundane professions, and try to investigate the paranormal using strict scientific methodology. They contain sceptics as well as believers, and are interested in finding the truth about specific events, whether they are really paranormal or have a rational explanation. They look down on some of the ghost-hunting groups, because these tend to be composed entirely of believers seeking to confirm their belief in the paranormal and collect what they see as evidence. If someone points out that the evidence they show on their videos actually is no such thing – for example, most researchers believe orbs aren’t the souls of the dead, but lens artefacts created by floating dust moats – then the die-hard ghost hunters tend to react by decrying their critics as ‘haters’. Many of the accounts of their encounters with the supernatural by the ghost hunters are extremely dramatic. They’ll describe how members got possessed or were chased by the spirits on their home. I’m not saying such events don’t happen at all. I do know people, who have apparently been possessed by spirits during investigations. But the stories of such supernatural events put up by the ghost-hunters seem more likely the result of powerful imaginations and hysteria than genuine manifestations by the dead.

Academic historians are also interested in spiritualism and supernatural belief in the past because of what they reveal about our ancestors worldview and the profound changes this underwent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychical research emerged in the 19th century at the same time as spiritualism, and was founded partly to investigate the latter. Both can be seen as attempts to provide concrete, scientifically valid proof of the survival of the soul after death at the time science was itself just taking shape and religious belief was under attack from scientific materialism. As the review says, spiritualism and psychic research were particularly popular in the aftermath of the First World War, as bereaved relatives turned to it for comfort that their loved ones still lived on in a blessed afterlife. One famous example of this is Conan Doyle, the creator of the arch-rationalist detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a spiritualist, who helped, amongst other things, popularise the Cottingley Fairies in his book, The Coming of the Fairies. Another of his books in this area was Raymond, an account of his contact with the spirit of his son, who was one of those killed in that terrible conflict.

But the history of spiritualism is also interesting because of what it also reveals about gender roles and sexuality, topics also touched on in the review. Mediums stereotypically tend to be women or gay men. At the same time, historians have also suggested that there was an erotic element to seances and investigations. More intimate physical contact between the sexes was permitted in the darkness of the séance room that may otherwise have been permitted in strictly respectable Victorian society. At the same time, there is to modern viewers a perverse aspect to the investigation of the mediums themselves. In order to rule out fraud, particularly with the physical mediums who claimed to produce ectoplasm from their bodies, mediums were tied up, stripped naked and examined physically, including in their intimate parts. Emetics could be administered to make sure that their stomachs were empty and not containing material, like cheesecloth, which could be used to fake ectoplasm.

The review, ‘Strange but true?’, runs

In February 1938, there was a commotion at a terraced house in Croydon. Alma and Les Fielding were asleep when tumblers began launching themselves at walls; a wind whipped up in their bedroom, lifting their eiderdown into the air; and a pot of face cream flew across the room. The next morning, as Alma prepared breakfast, eggs exploded and saucers snapped.

Over the next few days, visiting journalists witnessed lumps of coal rising from the fireplace and barrelling through the air, glasses escaping from locked cabinets and a capsizing wardrobe. As far as they could tell, the Fieldings were not responsible for the phenomena. One report told of a “malevolent, ghostly force”. The problem, it was decided, was a poltergeist.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the writer Kate Summerscale, best known for the award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, was in the Society for Psychical Research Archive in Cambridge looking for references to Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian émigré and pioneer of supernatural study, who investigated the fielding case.

She found a dossier of papers related to Alma, compiled by Fodor, containing interviews, séance transcripts, X-rays, lab reports, scribbled notes and photographs. The file was, says Summerscale, “a documentary account of fictional and magical events, a historical record of the imagination.”

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a detective novel, a ghost yarn and a historical record rolled into one. Blending fact and fiction it is an electrifying reconstruction of the reported events surrounding the Fieldings, all the while placing them in a wider context.

The narrative centres of Fodor, who at the time was losing faith in spiritualism – the mediums he had met were all fakes, and the hauntings he had investigated were obvious hoaxes. He was increasing convinced that supernatural occurrences were caused “not by the shades of the dead but by the unconscious minds of the living”.

But he was intrigued by Alma, who now experiencing “apports” – the transference of objects from one place to another. Rare stones and fossils would appear in her hands and flowers under her arms. Beetles started to scuttle out from her clothes and a terrapin appeared in her lap. She would later claim to be able to astrally project herself and give herself over to possession by spirits.

Summerscale resists the temptation to mine the more comic aspects of the story. She weaves in analysis on class, female emancipation and sexuality, and the collective angst of a nation. At the time, spiritualism was big business in Britain, which was still suffering the shocks of mass death from the First World War and Spanish flu. Seances to reach the departed were as common as cocktail parties. There was dread in the air, too, as another conflict in Europe loomed.

Alma became a local celebrity, released from domestic dreariness into the gaze of mostly male journalists, mediums and psychiatrists. Chaperoned by Fodor, she made frequent visits to the Institute of Psychical Research, where she submitted to lengthy and often invasive examinations.

We come to understand how Fodor stood to benefit from the cases, both in furthering his career and restoring his faith in the possibility of an afterlife. You feel his pain, along with Alma’s, as the true story is revealed.

It sounds very much from that last paragraph that the haunting was a hoax. There have been, unfortunately, all too many fake mediums and hoaxers keen to exploit those seeking the comfort of making contact once again with deceased relatives and friends. There was even a company selling a catalogue of gadgets to allow someone to take a séance. But I don’t believe for a single moment that all mediums are frauds. There is a psychological explanation, based on anthropologists study of the zar spirit possession cult of one of the African peoples. This is a very patriarchal culture, but possession by the zar spirits allows women to circumvent some of the restrictions of women. For example, they may be given rings and other objects while possessed through the spirits asking, or apparently asking, through them. It’s been suggested that zar possessions are a form of hysteria, in which women, who are frustrated by societal restrictions, are able to get around them. The same explanation has also been suggested for western mediumship and alien abductions. Many of the women, who became mediums and who experience abductions by aliens, may do so subconsciously as these offer an escape from stifling normal reality.

I also believe that some supernatural events may well be genuine. This view was staunchly defended by the late Brian Inglis in his history of ghosts and psychical research, Natural and Supernatural, in the 1990s. As an Anglican, I would also caution anyone considering getting involved in psychical research to take care. There’s fraud and hoaxing, of course, as well as misperception, while some paranormal phenomena may be the result of poorly understood fringe mental states. But I also believe that some of the supposed entities contacting us from the astral realms, if they exist, are deliberately trying to mislead us. The great UFO researchers, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, came to the same conclusion about the UFO entities. One of Keel’s books was entitled, Messengers of Deception. There’s also the book, Hungry Ghosts, again written from a non-Christian perspective, which also argues that some of the spirits contacting people are malevolent and trying to deceive humanity for their own purposes.

If you are interested in psychical research, therefore do it properly using scientific methodology. And be aware of the possibility of deception, both natural and supernatural.

PBS America Programme This Friday on Conspiracy Theories

September 19, 2020

According to this week’s Radio Times, the satellite/cable channel PBS America begins a new series this Friday, 25th September 2020, on conspiracy theories over on that side of the Atlantic. The programme’s entitled ‘United States of Conspiracy’, and begins with Alex Jones, the weird Texan internet radio and TV pundit. The piece about it by David Seale on page 106 of the RT reads

Contributing to this profile of the American broadcaster Alex Jones, British author Jon Ronson describes him as “the most… spiralling person I’ve ever met”.

Jones was a fringe figure until the confluence of 9/11 and the internet’s new power to build communities meant conspiracy theorists could band together and wield influence. Having turned fear and hatred into a lucrative commodity, Jones saw his tactic of repeatedly making wild statements with no supporting evidence enter the political mainstream.

Then in 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the US and things really got weird.

Ronson was the director and presenter of two documentary series on Channel 4 about conspiracy theories and secret American military projects to develop psychic powers, The Secret Rulers of the World and Crazy Rulers of the World. He also wrote two books to accompany his series, Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare At Goats. This last was made into a film a few years ago with Euan McGregor. It took its name from an American psychic warfare experiment, in which American squaddies tried to kill goats using only the power of their minds. I have no idea if they were ever successful, and did anything more than puzzle the goats, who may well have wondered why these men were staring at them.

I might be wrong, but I think Jones made his first appearance on British TV with Jonson on Secret Rulers of the World. He and Ronson sneaked into Bohemian Grove, the location of an annual gathering of America’s elite men that’s been held since the 19th century. As it’s an all-male party, you probably won’t be surprised that there have been allegations of sexual assault and harassment by some of these immensely rich geezers against the serving staff. It’s supposed to be a chance for the superrich running the country to network and let off steam during the summer. The culmination of the event is a piece of playacting called ‘The Sacrifice of Dull Care’. Or something like that. This involves an effigy representing Dull Care being ritually killed or burnt or otherwise sacrificed. There’s a widespread conspiracy theory, not just confined to America, that the world is run by a small cabal of immensely wealthy Satanists. Jones and others like him believe that this playlet is really a Satanic ceremony involving human sacrifice. Ronson and Jones filmed the ceremony, and it looked to me very much like it was only a effigy that was being ritually killed. But it was small, about the size of a child, and so to Jones and the others it really was a child, that was sacrificed to Satan by the elite men secretly ruling America. Jones was shown broadcasting this on his show, and then ranting to the camera about how Americans would never be forelock-tugging serfs and give up their guns.

Jones does a lot of ranting. And making bizarre, obviously fake smears against largely left-wing politicos and ordinary people. In one of his shows, he claimed that NASA had a secret base on Mars run by child slave labour. Which they obviously don’t, but the agency nevertheless felt that they had to issue an official denial. He also claimed that Barack Obama was the antichrist, ’cause he’s supposed to have smelt and had flies about him. Hillary Clinton was having a lesbian affair with one of her close political allies and is a witch practising black magic using human blood. She’s also either possessed by demons, or aliens, or is a robot from at least the waist down, because Jones reckons he saw something metal fall out of her trouser leg while she was out meeting the American public.

More seriously, Jones has made extremely dangerous, libelous claims that have caused innocent people great distress and nearly resulted in a shooting. He got sued a while ago by a Turkish businessman, who runs a yogurt factory in America. The man makes a point of employing immigrants and asylum seekers. The city where his business is located was hit by a series of rapes. Jones claimed they’d been committed by the Turkish bloke’s employees. They hadn’t, the man sued and won.

Then there was the Sandy Hook massacre, another school shooting. It’s a terrible tragedy, made worse by Jones’ paranoia. He’s convinced, or appears convinced, that such shootings are being deliberately staged to provide a pretext for the American government to pass legislation outlawing guns. From which the government will establish a dictatorship, forcing the American people into refugee and concentration camps. One of Jones’ nonsensical claims was that Barack Obama was going to declare a state of emergency and then have the American public rounded up into FEMA camps. Of course, no such thing has happened.

Jones claimed the Sandy Hook school shooting had similarly been staged, and that the parents shown grieving over the loss of their children were really ‘crisis actors’. It’s nonsense, and offensive nonsense, but that has stopped those who believe it pestering the parents to come clean and confess that it’s all fake.

And then there’s the incident when a gunman walked into a Boston pizza parlour looking for the kids that were allegedly being kept there ready to be abused by Democratic politicos. This was the rumour going round, according to which the abused kids were to be ordered up by their abusers with the pizza toppings used as a kind of code for what type of child the politicos wanted. In the meantime, the kids themselves were kept in an underground dungeon. A few years ago a bloke walked into the parlour off the street with a rifle demanding to be shown the dungeon so he could free the children. The parlour staff showed him that they didn’t have a dungeon, but only the cabinet where the business’ junction boxes were located, and a backroom which had their computer and lots of pizza boxes. All normal, no kids waiting for abuse. The gunman was satisfied with this, and gave himself up to the cops. It was a dangerous incident that very nearly could have ended in bloodshed. Even today, apparently, the parlour boss and his staff still get people demanding where they’re keeping the kids for abuse.

Jones has also appeared on British television. He turned up a little while ago on Andrew Neil’s show, where he started ranting about how Americans wouldn’t give up their guns, and 1776 would happen again if we tried to make them, before screaming nonsense like ‘metal shark!’ while the camera panned away to show Neil making the circling gesture around his temple with his finger showing precisely what he thought of Jones’ mental health.

No-one quite knows whether Jones believes the rubbish he spouts or not. Some people, who have met him personally say that behind the scenes he can be quite calm and rational. He has also formally deposed to the American courts that he doesn’t believe in what he broadcasts. His wife divorced him a few years ago, and sued for custody of their children. She was afraid for their mental health because Johnson’s TV studio was in their home. She was afraid that the children would come into it and hear all the terrifying, absurd gibberish that Jones and his guests and co-workers were broadcasting around America. Jones replied that he should retain custody of the kids, because he didn’t believe what he said. He was, he claimed, like a rodeo clown entertaining people.

I don’t know if Jones still is, but he was a staunch supporter of Donald Trump and several times had him as a guest on his show when he was campaigning for the presidency. It may therefore partly be thanks to the publicity Jones gave him that the Orange Generalissimo is in the White House.

Jones has more or less vanished from the airwaves in recent years. I think the bereaved parents of Sandy Hook took out a lawsuit against him, and as a result YouTube and other internet platforms decided he was too toxic and threw him off.

Jones is bizarre, and his antics entertaining if you’re not the one being libeled and smeared. But there’s a serious aspect to programmes like this, one which is not commented on by the mainstream media. There really are conspiracies and covert plots by the world’s governments, intelligence agencies and factions of businessmen. For example, there’s considerable evidence for the British state using loyalist paramilitaries to assassinate Republicans in Northern Ireland. One branch of the British secret services, the IRD, also forged material smearing Labour party politicos like Tony Benn as supporters of the IRA. Indeed, the entirely respectable academic historian Rory Cormac wrote a book about these very real conspiracies, Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy (Oxford: OUP 2018). But these aren’t covered when the media starts talking about conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Historians and researchers like Lobster’s Robin Ramsay aren’t invited onto any programmes. Instead, you get people like David Aaronovich, who blithely informs us all that there are no secret government conspiracies to deceive us going on, and we should all carry on trusting our rulers and betters.

The PBS America programme looks interesting, and these bogus conspiracies are interesting and important. While they aren’t real, they have real power because of the sheer number of people, who believe in them.

But there are also very real plots and conspiracies, like that al-Jazeera UK uncovered with Shai Masot at the Israeli embassy colluding with senior British civil servants over who should be in the cabinet. And the smears by the Integrity Initiative against Jeremy Corbyn, claiming that he was a Communist secret agent or collaborator with Putin. It’s these conspiracies that really do need careful analysis, dissection and exposure.

But that is precisely what the establishment does not want. And so for the moment conspiracy theories, as far as mainstream broadcasting goes, means the bizarre fantasies of people like Alex Jones.

Radio 4 Programme Next Week on Gef the Talking Mongoose

May 27, 2020

According to next week’s Radio Times for 30th May – 5th June 2020, Radio 4 next Tuesday, 2nd June, is broadcasting a programme on the bizarre affair of the Manx poltergeist, Gef the talking mongoose. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

In the 1930s, a BBC employee who was interested in psychic phenomena investigated the story of Gef the Talking Mongoose – a supernatural creature with a foul mouth and disturbing habits, said to haunt a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Man. Thinking to amuse the public in the silly season, he published an account of his findings, little knowing that Gef would cause a national scandal, prompt questions in the House, drag in Lord Reith himself, and provoke a front-page court case. Docudrama by Robin Brooks featuring Jasmine Nazina-Jones.

Gef the Talking Mongoose is supposed to be one of the poltergeist cases with the best supporting evidence. About a decade or so ago the Fortean Times, the magazine for connoisseurs du weird, published a long article about it. I leave it to you to decide for yourself what you think of it or the paranormal, but this could be an interesting programme. However, with docudramas you’re always left wondering how faithful they are to the facts, and how much is dramatic license.

Way back in the ’90s ghosts and ghost-hunting were all the rage, and Most Haunted and other shows like it were gathering sizable audiences for what were niche shows on the satellite and cable channels. It was lampooned on the Beeb comedy show, Dead Ringers, where Most Haunted’s star psychic at the time, Derek Acorah, received psychic impressions from a hibernating tortoise in a shed in a garden centre, before being possessed by the unquiet spirit of Desmond Decker. Slumping, ‘Acorah’ started singing ‘I don’t want to dance’.  The ghost hunting craze has passed, though there are still very many people up and down the country spending their weekends visiting haunted places in the hope of seeing or experiencing one. Most Haunted has come and gone, and Derek Acorah, I think, has sadly left us. But nevertheless, its fellows and competitors are still around on some channels.

I found the video below from Red Letter Media on YouTube. That channel specialises in film reviews, not always respectful, but always well informed and often hilariously funny. One of the hosts, Mike Stoklasa, here talks about his guilty pleasure. Which is watching one of these shows, Ghost Adventures. It’s clear that he doesn’t take it too seriously, but is very careful not to say that it’s all scripted, even when there’s abundant evidence in the clips he provides to show that it is.

In the edition he talks about, the ghost hunters visit a museum that contains a dybbuk box. A dybbuk is a type of Jewish demon. The show’s stars intend to open the box to see if it really does contain a demon. To make sure they are properly protected spiritually, they have on hand a rabbi. They ask the reverend gentleman if he knows how to deal with such a demonic object. He replies that he does, as he’s just looked it up that day. The ghost hunters seem a bit crestfallen, but ask him if he personally believes in demons. He tells them that he doesn’t, not in his personal religion, but he’s prepared to believe in them for the sake of the script. Oh dear! Stoklasa then helpfully explains that he thinks that what the rabbi meant was that he would, if the course of the programme required it, and that the show didn’t have a written script.

More proof that the show isn’t scripted comes from a video Ghost Adventures put on YouTube. One of the ghost hunters is talking to the viewer about some place he wishes to investigate in the locale they’re investigating. Then a door comes open. The presenter makes an exclamation of surprise, the sequence cuts, and then he is shown approaching the same location and giving the same speech. Stoklasa merely comments that it’s bad editing. Here’s Stoklasa and Jay talking about it.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence for the existence of ghosts and the paranormal, and many of the people I’ve come across who take them seriously enough to investigate them, whether believer or sceptic, are by no means gullible fools or cynical debunkers. But, as with everything else on TV, not everything you see is objective reality and it’s a myth that the camera never lies.

Is This the Most Insulting Comment Aliens Have Said to an Abductee?

April 29, 2020

I’ve just finished reading Dr. David Clarke’s The UFO Files, a history of UFOs in Britain from the phantom airship scares of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the abduction experiences from the 60s onwards, the 70’s craze created by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, right up to the years immediately preceding the book’s publication in 2009. The book was written to accompany the release of the government’s files on UFOs by the National Archives, and is naturally based on the records compiled by the MOD, the Air Ministry, RAF and armed forces, and the Airmiss inquiry group, which investigates near misses between aircraft.

It’s a fascinating book that shows that UFOs have been around for over a century and that the government and the British military don’t really know any more about them than anyone else. The aliens haven’t established secret bases in Britain, and neither to the RAF or anyone else for that matter have alien bodies stashed away in a secret hangar somewhere. The official government line, repeated over and again, is that UFOs or of ‘no defence significance’, and they really don’t want to get involved unless it’s absolutely necessary. They’ve therefore investigate UFO sightings and encounters when it affects national security, such as if the UFOs may actually be foreign planes. The last government report on the phenomenon concluded that most of them were generated by people wrongly identifying a variety of artificial objects and natural phenomena. Those that couldn’t be properly identified, were probably poorly understood meteorological phenomena, electromagnetic plasmas, which could also create hallucinations through interfering with the brains of witnesses. This part of the report was, however, attacked by scientists on its release as pseudoscience.

But very many of the UFOs reported over the years have been people mistaking a variety of normal objects and phenomena for alien craft. During the First World War, an anti-aircraft crew at an army base in Cumbria fired at what they honestly believed was a German Zeppelin. Except that an officer, arriving at the scene, reported that he saw them staring at a star. It was discovered during the Second World War that flocks of migrating birds could make radar trails very much like approaching enemy aircraft, although the airmen sent up to intercept them would find no-one except themselves up there. During the Cold War, UFO reports were generated by the Americans releasing the Mogul spy balloons from their base in Scotland, as well as later flights by spy planes like the U2 and SR-71. These were so secret, the Americans didn’t inform their NATO allies in the countries across which the planes and balloons traveled on their way to the USSR. As a result, RAF jets were scrambled to intercept these unidentified aircraft, while there was a spate of UFO reports along the German border.

Some UFO sightings were also caused by particularly spectacular fireball meteors burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. One of these was responsible for the Berwyn mountain crash, dubbed by some ‘the Welsh Roswell’. A series of meteors were seen over England, followed by an earthquake measuring 4-5 on the Richter scale centred in Bala. It was feared that a military plane had crashed on the mountain, as several had done so previously. The RAF therefore sent up a mountain rescue squad, which found nothing and came back down again. This was subsequently inflated into stories of the RAF’s retrieval of a crashed UFO and alien bodies.

Other sightings were caused by the re-entry of Soviet spacecraft burning up in the atmosphere. This is believed to be the cause of the Rendlesham Forest incident, ‘the British Roswell’, in which a group of American squaddies from a USAF base entered the forest to encounter a triangular UFO in 1980. It seems that the Americans seen the rocket for a Soviet Cosmos spy satellite re-entering, and then the lights from a nearby lighthouse, believing they came from an alien spacecraft.

One MOD scientific/intelligence officer believed that most UFO reports could be satisfactorily explained if they had been investigated immediately they occurred, rather than sometime afterwards. Nevertheless, there are encounters that are still genuinely perplexing. Such as the report a trucker driving through Devon in the ’70s made at a local police station. He had been driving along the main road there when a craft shaped like a mushroom descended, landing on the road ahead, out of which came six short figures wearing uniforms. After gesturing at him, the creatures eventually got in their spacecraft, which lifted up into the air and flew on, leaving the trucker shaken by the experience.

And then there’s the encounter reported by a gent in Basingstoke in 1968. The fellow had been walking down by the canal one morning when a UFO descended and he was taken aboard by their occupants. They examined him, before telling the poor chap, “You can go. You are too old and infirm for our purposes.” Popular SF, which seems to have strongly influenced the content of UFO encounters, has been full of tales of evil aliens coming to other to conquer and enslaved humanity, and carry off people off for breeding purposes. It’s usually females, as in the SF B-movie Mars Needs Women, but sometimes men as in the 1949 Hammer flick, Devil Girl from Mars. This episode occurred around about the time of the Villas Boas encounter, when a Brazilian farmer of that name had been abducted by aliens and forced to have sex with a red-headed alien woman. Possibly the crew of the Basingstoke UFO also had something similar in mind. If so, both they and the poor bloke they abducted were out of luck. Or perhaps they had in mind something far more unpleasant, in which case their intended victim was lucky. The Contactees, who met peaceful aliens in the 1950s, and the abductees from the 1980s onwards, were given messages by humanity by the aliens they encountered. These tend to moralistic sermons preaching international and intergalactic brotherhood, peace, an end to nuclear weapons and concern for the environment. Sometimes they include descriptions of the aliens’ own planets and their societies. Sometimes they’re even whisked away on journeys to these distant worlds. This poor fellow didn’t get any of that, just the blunt statement that he was too old and infirm for them. He was spared the horror and humiliation of being examined and experimented upon, but their comments still seem just a tiny bit insulting. They could have put it a bit more tactfully.

My own feeling is that UFOs, when they aren’t misidentified normal objects or phenomena, are internal visionary experiences drawing on the imagery of Science Fiction, but expressing deep-seated human fears and needs. I don’t know what generates them. I think some are probably the result of poorly understood psychological states, such as sleep paralysis. But I also wonder if others are genuine encounters with something paranormal, something that in previous centuries took the form of fairies and other supernatural beings, and now takes the form of aliens and spaceships as images more suitable for our technological society.

While David Clarke’s done excellent work researching the government’s UFO archives, and has shown that very many of them have entirely rational explanations, there may still be something genuinely paranormal out there. But it didn’t want the man from Basingstoke it encountered on that day in 1968.

The Wretched State of Modern Ghost Hunting

September 9, 2019

I spent Saturday with friends at a conference on the paranormal by ASSAP at the University of Bath. ASSAP are one of the old school ghosthunting/ paranormal investigation societies. They were formed 30 or so years ago to investigate spontaneous cases occurring in the outside world, as opposed to the laboratory based approach of the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR itself has been going for over a century now, and was founded by serious, prominent scientists, philosophers and intellectuals in the Victorian period to investigate the-then new phenomenon of Spiritualism. This raised the question of whether there was an afterlife and there were hidden powers of the mind, like telepathy, telekinesis and so on. I realise that this is very much fringe science, and to many people it’s unscientific nonsense. But these societies really are rigorously scientific in their approach to studying the paranormal. Many of their members and active officials are qualified and practising scientists, medical professionals, engineers and IT specialists, as well as academics from other disciplines, like history, anthropology and so on. In their investigations they formulate and apply the methods of science. Phenomena are thoroughly investigated, and only after natural explanations have been ruled out is it suggested that whatever strange events have occurred may be supernatural. That can mean long nights in supposedly haunted houses sitting quietly bored waiting for something to happen. They also have a strict code of conduct to regulate dealing with scared, vulnerable people. And this means not dabbling with things that are well outside their competence, such as people’s mental or physical health. There was a fascinating panel discussion with five leading investigators. And one of the issues they discussed was this. One panel member said that he had one person from a case he was investigating phone him up worried, as the ghost had started scratching them. He promptly advised them to see their GP as he was not qualified to investigate that. There are clear ethical issues involved, and the professionals make sure that they protect and look after the welfare of the people experiencing the haunting or whatever.

All of this contrasts very strongly with the approach of many of the contemporary ghosthunting groups. One of the talks I attended was by a female Ph.D. student, discussing why she no longer considers herself a ghosthunter. She very definitely was a ghosthunter, it must be said, but her old school approach was far too different from that of most of the ghosthunting groups that were now around. She stated at the outset that she wasn’t trying to shame or embarrass anyone. She was just trying to show what it was like now. And it was grim.

If she was correct, then contemporary ghosthunting is not driven by the goals and methods of science. ASSAP, the SPR and the other, older paranormal societies contain both believers and sceptics. These new societies were composed almost solely of believers, who were determined to obtain evidence. They were also very much creatures of today’s media-driven culture. They had their websites, on which they put up the video footage they believed they had obtained, which demonstrated paranormal activity. They also had their own merchandising, such a T-shirts and caps bearing their group’s logos. Quiet, scientific investigation was out. In old school investigations, things tend to be calm and quiet, with everyone knowing where everyone else is. In these investigations, there’s much excitement with people running around here and there. They are keen to have scientific equipment, like EMF meters. These register changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. But they don’t know how to use them. They’ll also have tape recorders in order to record any voices from the spirits. However, most of the time these record simply noise, and so they spend their time messing around with them trying not just to clean them up, but effectively editing the tape so it produces what they want to hear. The speaker said that these groups were strongly influenced by programmes like Most Haunted, where there was a lot of running about, a lot of excitement, and people got possessed. She showed one tweet from a group, which said they had had a quiet night. They had only encountered two spirits and a third had chased them home. This, she said, beat all the quiet times she had on investigations in haunted locations where absolutely zip happened.

They were also completely irresponsible with the members of the public they dealt with. One family were frightened to go up in their attack after they were told by the investigators that there was a demon up there, ’cause they’d caught it laughing on tape. Yes, it did sound like someone laughing. However, the sound was eventually revealed to be due to plumbing, rather than the paranormal. Another family made £10,000 worth of alterations to their property after another medium told them that they had a portal to the underworld. Yet another family were scared to go back to their house after a medium told them they also had a portal to the underworld. She wasn’t capable of dealing with it. She could, she said, give them an address of a shaman, but he had moved away. She made the point that this was incredibly irresponsible. She’d frightened these people, and then left with them with it.

She was also pessimistic about what could be done about this problem. It’s the hope of groups like ASSAP and the SPR that someday parapsychology will be given its due respect as a genuine scientific discipline. But there seems to be little chance of this with the field dominated by this new kind of ghosthunter. They were keen to defend the reality of the paranormal, and any criticism was met with the accusation that the critic was a ‘hater’, who should be ignored. This meant that the sceptics were even more determined to disparage and ignore parapsychology. The speaker had hoped that these groups would die out, but they seemed to multiply and breed like viruses.

It was a fascinating, if dispiriting – no pun intended – talk, and I really don’t know what can be done about this situation. The speaker said she didn’t want to shame anyone, as these groups genuinely believe that what they’re doing is right. Perhaps. But if they’re making ordinary people terrified in their own homes, then clearly they’re a menace. Listening to her, it struck me that ‘ghosthunting’ in the traditional sense was very much a misnomer for these people. They’re actually legend trippers. ‘Legend tripping’ is the term folklorists use to describe the practice of people, mostly youngsters, going to a haunted or supposedly paranormal location, in order to experience something weird. Quite often they also have an ulterior motive as well, as they’ll often bring alcohol and their girlfriends. I am not saying that these groups are also there to drink and have a bit of romance, but they do seem to show the same mindset as those seeking to experience the paranormal on legend trips.

But if these groups dominate ghosthunting now, perhaps there is still some hope. Possibly that style of ghosthunting may fall out of fashion, even though it hasn’t done so far. What I think groups like ASSAP can do is carry on with their thorough, scientific investigations and make sure that these are given due prominence, in the hope that their influence will carry. Hopefully, a few, at least, of the other groups may get the message of how to investigate the paranormal properly.

Woohoo! X-Files Coming Back on Monday on Channel 5

February 3, 2018

After a hiatus of about a year, the new X-Files series on Channel 5, Monday, 4th February 2018, at 9.00 in the evening. This has the remaining regulars of the old series in it – Duchovny and Anderson, Mitch Pileggi and the Cigarette Smoking Man, as well as Annabeth Gish, playing Agent Monica Reyes, who appeared in the very last series of the old X-Files. The listing for it in the Radio Times runs

The drama returns as an unconscious Scully is rushed to hospital, where a neurosurgeon discovers she is suffering from a frenzy of neural activity. (p. 74).

And the blurb for it a few pages earlier on page 71 also runs

When we were last in the company of Mulder and Scully, he was succumbing to a virus that was stripping his immune system, awhile she was staring wide-eyed at a UFO descending from the heavens. It was a whopper of a cliffhanger, and one that, unfortunately, gets resolved using storytelling techniques frowned upon by primary-school teachers.

But that is the perennial problem when The X-Files does these government-conspiracy ‘mythology arc’ episodes: they initially seem tricksy and knotty, but tend to fall apart at the slightest unpicking. Thankfully, we have a standalone case to look forward to next week, so not all hope was lost.

And here’s the trailer for it I found on YouTube. Amongst the delights promised is a meeting between Mulder and Scully and the man, who set up the X-Files, Skinner doing dodgy things for the Cigarette Smoking Man, and a carnivorous monster created through the merging of human and alien DNA.

Yay! Paranoia, the paranormal, UFOs, urban legends, weird science and general high-strangeness is back!